Two years after its release, Amenábar's movie Agora is continuing to perpetuate some modern myths about the history of science. The latest person to swallow its fable-version of history is a geologist called Donald Prothero, who is one of a number of bloggers at Skepticblog and who has written a glowing review of the film entitled "Hypatia, Agora and Religion vs Science". Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and, judging from his posts, someone who has been keeping up the fight against the irrational idiots of the "Creation Science" movement and its latest stalking horse, the "Intelligent Design" political lobby. For that he deserves both our thanks and our pity. Unfortunately, probably as a consequence, he has bought the "Conflict Thesis" idea wholesale and so is happy to find it being reinforced by the version of history found in Agora. Of course, it's probably not entirely fair to expect a geologist to have much of a grasp of Late Roman history or to be up on the early history of science. But he seems to be taken as an authority on these matters by the readers of Skepticblog, judging from the readers' comments. Which is a worry, because, despite referring to "scholarly sources" that he consulted when writing his review, he makes a complete hash of the history behind this story.
He doesn't exactly get off to a flying start by opening with a quote from Hypatia. Or I should say a "quote" allegedly from Hypatia which is actually a modern fake:
Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
Now, these are fine sentiments, especially the "fables should be taught as fables" part, which is advice Amenábar could perhaps have taken before he made this film. But the "quote" is a fabrication. It was invented by the American writer, soap-salesman and eccentric Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 book entitled Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great Teachers. Hubbard chose Hypatia as one of his "great teachers" but was stymied by the awkward fact that we have virtually nothing of Hypatia's writings or teachings, making it a bit hard to present her as "great". He solved this problem by simply making some up, including the wise words above.
Prothero goes on to praise Agora as "a gem of a movie" and to describe its production values, sets and so on. No problems there, but then he plunges headfirst into some bold statements about history:
The central story revolves around Hypatia of Alexandria (born ca. 350 to 370 A.D, died 415 A.D.), who lived in Hellenistic Alexandria during the final death throes of the Roman Empire.
"Final death throes"? Alexandria was part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which did not fall until a whopping 1038 years after Hypatia's death. Those are some pretty long "death throes". Prothero goes on:
Most of the historical events portrayed in the film is as accurate as historians can know them, from the religious tension to the destruction of the Alexandrian library (and its priceless collection of the works of the ancients) by a black-clad Christian mob who viewed philosophy and learning as pagan and idolatrous, to the eventual subjugation of the Roman Empire by Christian leaders.
Of course, very few of the events depicted in the film are accurate at all, as my two previous articles on this movie's liberties with history have shown (see "Agora" and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again and Hypatia and "Agora" Redux). There is no evidence of any library in the Serapeum and the idea that "Christian leaders" regarded philosophy and learning as "pagan and idolatrous" is simply nonsense. Prothero then assures us that "Hypatia is practically the only prominent female name among scholars in the ancient world", which is also wrong. Just a generation after Hypatia, for example, we have another famed female philosopher in Alexandria, Aedisia. Not only was she a famous scholar and teacher and a woman, but she was also a pagan. Yet somehow she managed to remain entirely unmolested by black-clad Christian mobs, which should give a bit of a hint that the portrayal of history in this film that Prothero finds so rock solid is actually not telling us the truth.
Prothero tells us Hypatia "may or may not have invented the astrolabe and the hydrometer". His caution is wise, since these claims have no basis at all. The idea that she "invented" the hydrometer is based on a letter to her from Synesius asking her to get one made for him. Why this letter has led to the idea that she invented the instrument is a puzzle, since in it Synesius has to explain to her what a hydrometer is and how it works. That would be odd if she was the instrument's inventor. Clearly he is asking her to get one made for him because there were instrument makers capable of the job in Alexandria and not in Lybia. Prothero goes on:
The movie has her character questioning Ptolemaic astronomy and investigating the heliocentric model of Hipparchos of Samos, and coming up with Kepler’s elliptical orbits as a solution to the problem of heliocentrism. This last part is probably fiction, but then Hypatia has been such a symbol of science and feminism for centuries that nearly every author has embellished our ideas of her.
Actually, it's not just the "last part" that is fiction (there' no "probably" about it) - there is zero evidence of Hypatia questioning the Ptolemaic model and, as the daughter of Ptolemy's best editor, the whole idea that she would is pretty fanciful. Heliocentrism had long since been rejected by ancient astronomers on what were, at the time, quite reasonable grounds, so the idea that Hypatia dabbled with it is fantasy. Of course, the film's promoters were happy to peddle it as history, with video of vox populi on the streets of a German city being used to advertise the film showing unsuspecting people being told that Hypatia discovered heliocentrism. They are surprised that they have never heard this. They shouldn't be, of course. Because it's crap. Prothero also gets his ancient scientists muddled up - the Samosian he was trying to refer to was Aristarchus, not Hipparchus of Samos. The latter did study astronomy, but was definitely not a heliocentrist.
But no account of Hypatia is complete without the perpetuation of the myth that she was flayed alive:
And the ending, where her Christian former slave suffocates her to save her from a painful death for being a pagan and a witch, was not nearly as harsh as reality. According to historical records, a Christian mob kidnapped her from her chariot, stripped her naked, flayed her alive with sharp potsherds, and then dragged her skinned body through the streets.
We than thank our old pal Edward Gibbon for this one - a guy who is the point of origin for many persistent historical myths. What Socrates Scholasticus tells us about the nature of her death was that the mob used "ὄστρακα" to kill her. An "ostrakon" could be a potsherd. Or it could be an oyster shell, which is how Gibbon interpreted the word and so came up with the idea Hypatia was flayed with sharp shells. But while the image of a naked woman being flayed alive with sharp shells or potsherds is suitably lurid and dramatic, the word ὄστρακα here most likely refers to roof tiles. Hypatia was stoned to death with the projectiles that would have been most readily at hand in an Alexandrine street: terracotta roof tiles. Of course, that's not exactly a pleasant way to go out, but for some reason people seem to prefer the idea of her being flayed alive. The quote from Scholasticus in the Wikipedia entry on Hypatia even changes his plain statement "they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles" to "they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell", which is not even remotely close to what Scholasticus wrote. I suppose one way to get the evidence to conform to pseudo historical myth is to simply change the source material.*
But then Prothero gets down to ideological brass tacks:
But although the historical details could be quibbled over, the main point of the movie rings true, especially in this current age where religious dogmatism is still attempting to suppress science and free inquiry.
The movie actually has a lot more to do with "this current age" than it does with anything that happened in the Fifth Century. Prothero has certainly bought the message of its fable. It's another manifestation of the old "Conflict Thesis" that seems to be reinforced by the actual, very modern, conflict between reactionary fundamentalist Biblical literalists and modern science. For Prothero, as for many people without a good grasp of the history of science, if (some) religious types are opposed to proper science today then it makes sense that they must have always done so. Therefore he likes the fact that this is being reinforced by Amenábar's movie and is oblivious to the fact that Amenábar has had to distort history to get it to conform to the "Conflict" model.
Of course, the problem here is that actual historians of science have long since abandoned the "Conflict Thesis" and debunked the Nineteenth Century works of ideologues like John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, whose books fixed this idea in the popular imagination. Gary Ferngren neatly summarises the current state of play amongst professional historians on this subject:
While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. (Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, p. ix)
For some modern ideologues, however, this will not do at all. They want the "Conflict Thesis" to be true and get mighty cross with these pesky historians when they find they no longer accept the old "the Church suppressed science" idea that they like so much. The odd coterie of atheists of the particularly grumpy variety over at Butterflies and Wheels, for example, are having none of this fashionable nonsense about religion perhaps actually nurturing science and dismiss such outrageous poppycock as "revisionism". When confronted by the awkward fact that the "Conflict Thesis" is rejected by leading historians of science such as Ronald Numbers, David Lindberg and Edward Grant, they are forced to resort to conspiracy theories - apparently these learned and celebrated scholars are all being bribed by the evil Templeton Foundation and are thus being swayed by wicked theists to compromise their academic careers and reputations and adopt an "accomodationist" stance on history. Don your tinfoil hat now. Not surprisingly, everyone's favourite retired high school teacher Charles Freeman has found his natural home on that odd little blog.
It seems the history of science simply can't be left to mere historians to write, since they don't write the version of history that some of my fellow atheists would like, which is very irritating to the grumpy anti-theistic movement. Luckily we have scientists who are happy to venture out of their fields and set those silly, muddle-headed award winning renowned historians straight. Particle physicist and grumpy anti-theist Victor J. Stenger is about to deal a mighty blow to all revisionist historians and Templeton Foundation quislings with his upcoming book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion . I have my copy on pre-order, so expect a review here in coming months. The George Sarton Medal committee has been informed.
Speaking of scientists dabbling with history, back to Professor Prothero. "Late Roman Alexandria was indeed a tolerant place" he tells us, "where the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods were still worshiped." There might be an alternative universe where pre-Christian Alexandria was a "tolerant place", but here in our world it was anything but. Novelist Mike Flynn's series of articles "The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria" show that Alexandria was a hotbed of street violence, political killings, factional brawling and inter-faith conflict long before Christianity was added to the mix. The city has the dubious distinction of being the site of several of the earliest recorded anti-Jewish pogroms. And the "tolerance" of this notably intolerant city did not extend to Christians for the first three hundred years of that faith's history. Like Manicheans, Alexandrine Christians were subjected to periodic bouts of Roman "tolerance" that involved "tolerant" things like being burned alive in arenas, being crucified and being fed to wild animals. As the man hanging in the cell in The Life of Brian said "Terrific people, the Romans". Very "tolerant".
We then get Prothero telling us about how the Christians destroyed the library-that-wasn't-there in the Serapeum and then this statement:
Many scholars still consider the murder of Hypatia and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity (with the destruction of nearly all Greek and Roman scholarship) as the beginning of the “Dark Ages” in the west.
"Many scholars"? Really? Such as who? No scholar with a clue would consider any such thing, since if we can read any Greek or Roman scholarship at all we have a Christian scribe to thank for the privilege. The Grumpy Anti-theist Brigade love this idea of the quaintly named "Dark Ages" being ushered in by Christianity and wicked book-burning Christians, though they get frustrated (and annoyed) by pesky rationalists who dare to ask them to present some evidence of this "destruction". They usually try the "Christians burned the Great Library" tack, but when the rug gets pulled out from under them on that score, they get rather cross when they find they have nothing else they can cite. Pesky historians attribute the loss of knowledge in western Europe to the not inconsequential effects of the total collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but that's no fun for an anti-theistic ideologue. And it's strange that when Prothero was writing that sentence above it didn't occur to him to ponder how the events of Hypatia's life caused the collapse of learning "in the west" when she lived in the east. That should have been a hint that something else was going on.
Naturally, Galileo is now invoked along with a reference to Creationism. Then we are told that "the intolerant Christian mobs that came to rule the late Roman Empire were in turn defeated and driven out of Alexandria by even more fanatical Muslim armies and rulers, who destroyed what little remained of classical civilization that the Christians had not already burned or banished". Again, we seem to be in some alternative universe's history here, since in the real world the naughty old Muslims actually took the Greek and Roman knowledge that had been preserved by wicked Byzantine and Nestorian monks and expanded on it, carrying it to Spain where it was eagerly embraced by Medieval Christian scholars and returned to the west. But that story is no fun at all. Pesky historians and their pesky facts and evidence ruin it for everyone.
Prothero ends with a fine flourish by talking about "Christians suppressing the heretical notion that the Earth is round". I suppose if you write a post peppered with totally discredited pseudo historical myths and demonstrate a high school level and totally cartoonish grasp of history you might as well end with an absolute doozy - the old "flat earth myth". Many of his readers lapped up this serving of the "Conflict Thesis" with comments like "this film really made me angry, and yet it also made me proud to be a freethinker". When one tries to caution that Agora actually took liberties with history, Prothero counters by claiming "so little is known about “facts” back in 400 AD that scholars have very little that is well documented and non-controversial". What? So we can just make up any crap we like then? Several events in this movie are actually extremely well documented. The destruction of the Serapeum is one of the best documented events in ancient history, with no less than five separate independent accounts of it. Oddly, none of them mention any library there or any destruction of books. Not even the hostile, anti-Christian philosopher Eunapius' account. And the contemporary accounts of Hypatia's death tell us it was caused by politics and had nothing to do with religion or learning. These accounts are entirely "non-controversial", but they don't support Amenábar's pseudo historical fable at all.
We also get some whackiness in the comments. One "Dr Strangelove" informs us authoritatively that "Copernicus read Aristarchus". It would be remarkable if he did, considering none of Aristarchus' worked survived to Copernicus' time or to ours. The same commenter goes on to note "Galileo read Archimedes, Columbus and geographers read Eratosthenes and Ptolemy, Newton read Euclid, Kepler read Apollonius". He doesn't seem to have noticed, however, that they read these ancient authors because Byzantine, Nestorian and western Catholic monks preserved their works. So much for "book-burning Christians". Then we get this gem:
The ancient Greeks already had prototype steam engines and mechanical computers. Had the Church not killed Alexandrian science, we could have the Industrial revolution 1,000 years before James Watt.
The "prototype steam engine" referred to here is the tiny aeolipile of Heron, a cute little toy that would never have led to an actual steam engine given the metals technology of the time. The "mechanical computer" seems to be a reference to the Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator of a kind that continued to be produced for centuries later, without ushering in any "industrial revolution". And the Church preserved Greek science, thanks substantially to the insistence of another learned Alexandrine, Clement, who stressed that all knowledge was from God and that Greek rationalism was to be revered and not rejected. But who wants to let pesky facts get in the way of pretty myths?
Luckily, at least some of the skeptics on Skepticblog actually have a true scepticism and went to do some fact checking on the movie. One summed up what they found very nicely:
Too many modern attitudes pasted onto Roman-Hellenistic people. And too many modern attitudes about religion pasted onto early Christians. This wasn’t a historical drama, it was Narnia for atheists.
"Narnia for atheists" indeed. One of the later posters linked to my critique of Agora's history. That was nice of them, but I suspect it was a bit late - most of the "sceptics" had digested their serving of "history by a scientist" and moved on, prejudices confirmed and myths reinforced. Unfortunately this junk is what passes for "rationalism" on the internet. Sometimes this rationalist truly despairs.
* A reader of this blog has corrected the translation of Socrates Scholasticus' account of Hypatia's death quoted on Wikipedia, so it now reads correctly. Let's see if it stays that way or if the zealots change it to conform to their fantasies again.
Postscript: Here's one for the Irony Files. The same Donald Prothero who wrote the error-laden post on Hypatia, the history of science and the supposed suppression of learning by the church later wrote a post on Skepticblog on the Dunning-Kruger Effect. He defined this as the way "ignorant or unskilled people tend to overestimate their level of competence and expertise". His post made good observations about the implications of Dunning and Kruger's findings, talking about examples of "incompetents who don’t recognize their incompetence, often shouting out their inanities and attempting to drown out their expert critics".
I couldn't resist noting in the comments on that post that a certain earlier Skepticblog post by Prothero on Hypatia and the history of science was a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, given that it was riddled with errors of fact and demonstrated what happens when "ignorant or unskilled people tend to overestimate their level of competence and expertise" in a field they know nothing about. Interestingly, an hour or so after it was posted, my comment was suddenly edited out. Luckily others had already noted it and commented unfavourably on its being censored. I reposted it with a link the to post above and chided Prothero for removing my original comment. This time the comment was allowed to stay.